Silence and the smile

The Telegraph: How were the last two days?

By Devadeep Purohit
  • Published 27.05.18
Hasina and Mamata in Calcutta. Pictures by Gautam Bose

The Telegraph: How were the last two days?

Sheikh Hasina: All good, very good.

The Telegraph: You had to attend several programmes....

Sheikh Hasina: Yes, so many ( gestures with her hands)....

The Telegraph: Were all your hopes fulfilled?

Calcutta: The Bangladesh Prime Minister flashed a wry smile and started walking. A few steps took her to the SUV that would ferry her to the airport to catch a Bangladesh Biman flight to Dhaka.

The silence and the smile in response to the last question from this correspondent - after her 30-minute one-to-one with Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee - suggested diplomatic sagacity: it is best not to talk about a work in progress, aka the Teesta water-sharing agreement, and tie the hands of the other side.

For Hasina, and the ruling establishment in Bangladesh, hope means ink on the Teesta agreement.

"Teesta is the most important issue for us and we need its resolution as we are heading to a general election this year. There is no doubt that our Prime Minister broached this issue when she met your chief minister one to one after the delegation-level meeting," a key member of Hasina's 120-plus delegation told this newspaper.

During the 36 hours Hasina spent in Bengal, no one from the Bangladeshi side uttered the T-word publicly. The Teesta agreement - stuck since September 2011 following Mamata's resistance - did not come up even during the 30 minutes the two leaders spent with their delegates before their one-to-one.

Another source on the Bangladeshi side said: "No one knows it more than the Prime Minister how important the Teesta deal is. So, she is the best person to explain it to Didi."

The crux of what the two sources said was that Hasina must have spoken to Mamata about Teesta when she met her alone on Saturday evening. But there was no clarity whether the likely request from Hasina -Bangladesh has never pushed aggressively for the Teesta deal - had prompted Mamata to soften her stand.

When Mamata met reporters after the meeting with Hasina, she was asked whether Hasina had made any "special request".

"They have nothing to seek from us. They are doing very well on their own and I think they will do even better," the Bengal chief minister said.

"We have had a long history of good relations with Bangladesh since the days of the Liberation War, and I think it will remain that way."

Mamata also referred to her personal rapport with Hasina, the Prime Minister's sister Rehana and the rest of the family, and the cultural bonding between the two Bengals. But the chief minister was silent on the key issue of Teesta.

A source in Team Bangladesh said the government had tried its best to downplay the expectations on the Teesta before Hasina's visit. With 100-plus representatives from the world of culture and academia in the delegation, the trip was billed as a "cultural" one without any political agenda.

"Each time we have referred to the Teesta in conversations with the Bengal chief minister, she (Mamata) has stonewalled it. Let's see how she reacts this time," a source said, referring to earlier meetings.

"We are in dire need of a deal on the Teesta. It became an issue ahead of the last general election in 2014, and we were clobbered for failing to seal a deal. This time the same noise will start. Our position is very clear: if there are two drops in the Teesta, we need one drop."

Keen not to rock the boat in any way, no one would say whether an interim deal - one that can be finalised after watching the water flow and its impact - might be explored.

It could not be independently confirmed whether Hasina had suggested a diluted version of the deal at her meeting with Mamata.

"That Mamata went to see Hasina means there is hope for Bangladesh," a source said. "She would have known that Hasina would talk about the Teesta but she still went. That means she has not slammed the door on a deal."